Vocabulary Strategies: Word Analysis, Word Choice & Exposure

Instructor: Jennifer Carnevale

Jennifer has a dual master's in English literature/teaching and is currently a high school English teacher. She teaches college classes on the side.

The days of pulling words from a vocabulary workbook are over. In this lesson we will identify and distinguish between the strategies of word analysis, author's word choice, and multiple exposures as tools for teaching vocabulary.

Accessing Language

Most of us can remember receiving lists of random vocabulary words to memorize. Parts of speech and multiple definitions were practiced by completing fill-in-the-blank sentences or rewriting definitions multiple times, but recently, these practices have been replaced by more effective strategies. Research tells us we need an organic process to teach our students new vocabulary, and to me, this makes absolute sense.

Think about it. When do we gather the majority of our vocabulary? If you answered at a young age, you are correct. As time passes, we still learn words, but only in specific contexts or by being avid readers. Genuine language acquisition takes time and care.

Let's explore how to get away from memorizing words, and instead, focus on teaching vocabulary strategies through multiple means.

Word Analysis

No matter how old we are, comprehending what we are reading depends on our reading level. We need to know the meaning of the words before we can know the meaning of a text. We want to start by teaching students how to analyze words they don't know through word analysis. Word analysis is when you break down a word by looking for prefixes, suffixes, and root words. By teaching our students this strategy, we give them a useful tool so they won't necessarily have to run to a dictionary every time they see a word they don't know, which can be helpful during exams and standardized testing.

For example, I recently taught the words 'malevolent' and 'benevolent' to my 9th graders. By modeling the breakdown of the prefixes 'mal' and 'ben', I gave my students an easy way to remember the meaning of these words.

There are times when I teach origins as well, which can help aid in remembering definitions and/or connotations. For example, the word 'fickle' comes from the Old English word 'ficol' meaning deceitful. This helps me teach the connotation of fickle, along with how to use the word in context.

Analyzing Diction

Along with analyzing words to decipher meaning, we also need to teach our students how to access context, and to do so, we must look at the author's word choices, also known as diction. Diction is the style of writing determined by an author and analyzed as word choices and phrases. To help us understand diction, we need to look at the author and historical perspective from which he or she is writing.

Shakespeare's writing seems backwards to most students, since we use a simplified version of Old English today, but his diction is reminiscent of the time period in which he lived mixed with iambic pentameter. It's important to explain the historical perspective to understand diction, along with a brief lesson in poetry. Without these mini lessons, our students cannot understand the context of the story.

Practice Makes Perfect

Repetition is key. Without multiple exposures to new vocabulary, students will not have enough time to practice using, hearing, and reading the words to fully grasp their meaning. Sometimes we get caught up in simply getting through curriculum as teachers, but it's important to take time to practice using new words as often as possible.

A quick 'Do Now' at the beginning of class or a 'Ticket to Leave' at the end of each day can reinforce vocabulary without taking away from class time. Sometimes I have my students select three words and write sentences based on those words.

I make sure to give my students multiple opportunities to practice in the format of their final vocabulary quiz as well. I give my students 3-4 worksheets a unit that have a word bank and fill-in sentences. Two of the handouts are usually random sentences, while the other connects to the text of the unit.

Other quick tips: I keep the vocabulary words posted on the board, so even if we are not working on vocabulary, I can refer back to the list during reading time or discussions. I also like to incorporate the words into their reading guide questions, either by using the word in a question or making them answer by using a word from the list.

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